Thought Box

I want to act, not be famous: Arif Zakaria

I want to act, not be famous: Arif Zakaria

by Aparajita Krishna December 1 2020, 12:01 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 53 secs

Aparajita Krishna tells us, that Arif Zakaria was born in a very respected Konkani Muslim family in Bombay.

“Haazaron jawaabon se behtar khamoshi meri - na jaane tere kitney sawaalon ki aabru rakhein” - My silence is better than a thousand replies//For all I know they may veil the modesty of your many questions. 

This couplet was actor-director Arif Zakaria’s poetic comment on my list of elaborate questions to him and my persistence to get his replies. To state the obvious, my persistence was simply because I admire and appreciate Arif as an actor and a person. He is one whose work has walked different platforms: from theatre to television, to cinema to now the streaming-web-fare. He has addressed his work with admirable selection and sincerity. He has played Gandhi and Nehru.   

His father was in politics and business. Uncle Rafiq Zakaria was a respected veteran politician of the Indian National Congress (INC). His cousin is the well-known Indian-American journalist Fareed Zakaria. His brother Asif Zakaria is an INC politician. 

He informs, “My father was in politics and business and my family tree has roots in writing, creativity and social work. I guess some genes, offshoots evolved within me and I veered towards entertainment. Though my son Aimaan, aged 14, has diverse interests presently. So did I at his age, I guess. But with so much information at his finger-tips - hope this new age helps kids make right choices.” 

At this stage how do you assess or summarize your life, personally and professionally? You have a resume of very selective, niche and admirable work-profile; a body of work that has travelled from the good old Doordarshan days, to satellite television to films to now streaming on the digital platforms.  

There is no time to summarize or take stock. Primarily because we live in such fast changing times - all my energies and focus goes in trying to make myself relevant with my craft and abilities and trying to grasp this dynamic change. I was fortunate or unfortunate to have started early. It was during college with Doordarshan when I acted in Chunauti, which led to TV offers subsequently, notably Karam Bhoomi, Humraahi, Bhootnath, Arzoo, Shesh Prashan, Dawn (English) etc. In 1993 Zee TV commenced and I worked on Campus for almost four years, which was the flagship show. Then did Amaanat, which also was immensely popular during those days. Late Sanjeev Bhattacharya, who was my mentor in my nascent years, helmed both of these shows. Then I did a few shows for Star plus, like Mrityudand, Kaali- Ek Agni Parikshaa and thus saw the advent of Satellite TV. 

Somewhere in between I made my film debut with Kalpana Lajmi’s Darmiyaan (1997). I kept my curiosity alive for all platforms and continue to do so. I did varied films as well - Dance Like A Man by Pamela Rooks, Nanak Shah Fakir, Haunted 3D by Vikram Bhatt, Jannat 2, Raazi by Meghna Gulzar. And am now doing web content. 

Is the message the medium or the medium the message? As in how do you assess the trajectory of Indian entertainment fare from the time you started to in the now? 

I’ve always believed the message or content is the medium. Unfortunately dynamic and effective content gets lost so easily nowadays. Hence I used the word fortunate in my previous answer, as I began early and was privy to some good writing on TV. Platforms were not varied and audiences recalled shows and characters. We shouldn’t compare any era with another. Technology, sensibilities have evolved and we’ve done a good job in keeping our content relevant and entertaining. Please remember the primary motive of content creation is entertainment and we’ve done well with it. Also there is so much thrust on packaging and marketing that sometimes subjects go through these filters and lose steam. As I always believe- I want to act, not become famous!  

Now, to revert back to the beginnings - what is the earliest childhood memory that beckons, rests in you?  

Earliest childhood memories are growing up in Bandra, attending St. Andrews High school and playing cricket and being diligent in all spheres. I was an average student with no special skill set. Entering Sydenham College changed all of this, as it was a pro-active college full of activities. 

It was at Sydenham College that you got active in theatre. Do recall a play/plays that you acted in or directed and that which gave flight to you becoming an actor as an adult? 

I first stepped on stage in Sydenham College. Providence played a big part in this and continues to do so. There was a poster in the foyer, calling students to audition for a Hindi play. I went for a lark on a quiet afternoon in the auditorium and got selected for a non-speaking part in a play titled ‘Queue’. All I had to do here was sneeze at various points as a reaction to another character’s dialogue. It was a social satire about a few people standing outside a ration shop in a queue. In hindsight, if I hadn’t seen that poster in the foyer or gone for the audition my life would’ve been something else. 

Who were the actors, directors in your formative years, in theatre and in films, which appealed to you? 

Being proactive on stage I got exposed to theatre. I recall watching Ratan Thiyam’s Chakravyuh at the NCPA and being enthralled at the scale. I watched Motley’s few performances too and a few groups at Prithvi. I even started my own group Histrionics in college. I recall watching Shafi Inamdar and Bhakti Barve in Anjaan Sheher (Prisoner of Second Avenue in Hindi) written By Meer Muneer - a few notable English productions too by Janak Toprani (who I worked with later) and Burjor Patel Productions. 

It was the TV serial Chunauti (1987-1988) directed by Sanjeev Bhattacharya, aired on DD National that brought you into the limelight. It was a college-campus story targeted at the youth in the audience, a window into the psyche of college life in India. The serial of just 22 episodes lives on in reference. 

Chunauti happened when I was in my college in BCom. I had a chance meeting with Meer Muneer, the writer, and he suggested I meet the producers as they were keen to cast student actors in student roles. Our entire drama group met with Mr Rakesh Chowdhury, the producers, and then Sanjeev Bhattacharya, the director. After some rigorous auditions we forgot about this for a few months till one fine day they called and said a few of us have been selected. Thus we shot for the pilot over a few days and once again forgot about the project till they called to say that we were to be on air in a few months and they wanted to start the shooting. Luckily, it is still remembered by a large number of people. It had Rajeev Varma, Ajith Vachani, Mohan Bhandari, Rita Bhaduri, Master Rajoo, Ali Asghar and my college drama-mates including Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, Deepak Jain and Cyrus Taraporewala.

You made your film debut in a very unusual film ‘Darmiyaan’ (1997) directed by Kalpana Lajmi. Your role of Emmi Begum was of a hermaphrodite. It also starred Kiron Kher, Sayaji Shinde. Set in the 1940s, it tells the story of an actress-mother who discovers the alternative sexuality of her son. Now in retrospect how do you assess your role and the film? It got the national award. Did you get one? And for the record, was Shah Rukh Khan offered the role before you addressed it? 

I did Darmiyaan by Kalpana Lajmi. It was an offbeat role then to make a debut with, but I still went ahead thinking it will be a one-film journey and then I will go back to TV. It was a bold, unconventional story about a hermaphrodite child and his relationship with his mother (Kiron Kher). I didn’t get any award, but was nominated for the national award and best debut for Filmfare and Screen. 

(The SRK part of the question goes unanswered)

1947 Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta (1999), was a fine period drama based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India; also published as Ice Candy Man. It was set during the 1947 partition of India. It was India’s official entry for the Academy Awards. It starred Aamir Khan, Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Rahul Khanna, Kitu Gidwani, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and you played Rustam Sethna. How do you look back on the film? 

1947 Earth was a good experience with Deepa Mehta working on such a delicate subject. It was shot in the winters of Delhi in 1998. Deepa is meticulous and precise and chooses great stories. 

Films trickled in including the mainstream fare. There was Sangharsh by Tanuja Chandra. 

It was actually Bhattsaab (Mahesh Bhatt) who surprised me with this as I was working on serial Dhund with Pooja Bhatt and Vikram Bhatt. I got to sing my first lip-sync song in Sangharsh. 

Dance Like A Man (2004), was directed by Mahesh Dattani based on his own play. Do apprise one about the film and your role. 

Dance Like A Man was based on Mahesh Dattani’s play of the same name. Pamela Rooks directed the film. I had to learn Bharat Natyam for almost 6 months as per the character - also keeping step with Shobhana was a task, but she made life easy. I have fond memories of shooting this in Bangalore. The story is about a dancing couple that is acrimonious and bitter yet respects each other. 

The role-call followed in Hazaaron Khwaishien Aisi (2005) directed by Sudhir Mishra, Shyam Benegal’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: the Forgotten Hero (2005), Home Delivery (2005) directed by Sujoy Ghosh, Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo (2004) directed by Anil Sharma, My Name Is Khan (2010) directed by Karan Johar. 

In Haunted 3D (2011), directed by Vikram Bhatt, you played the ghost who haunts the female protagonist. Interesting? 

Haunted was very interesting as we were shooting in 3D. This film also became immensely popular and is recalled by a certain section of people. I also did another horror film as the main antagonist - Darr at the mall - directed by Pawan Kripalani (2016). 

Jism 2 (2012) directed by Pooja Bhatt is termed an erotic thriller. It starred Sunny Leone, Arunodya Singh. 

Yes, this was a fun shoot, as it always is with Pooja Bhatt and her team. We shot this in Galle in Sri lanka, and Bhatt Saab was on set guiding us. Enjoyed the experience and the shoot. 

In Krish3 (2013), a very mainstream film, Arif played a special cameo of Dr. Varun Shetty, Rohit’s (Hrithik Roshan) scientist friend. In Lootera (2013) directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, Arif played Ranveer Singh’s mentor A K Bajpai. The film did get its share of acclaim for its premise and depiction of the 1950s era. 

In Raazi (2018), directed by Meghna Gulzar, based on the source material of Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat, you played Abdul, an aging suspicious loyal Pakistani house-help who is a staunchly loyal retainer. It is through Abdul that the female protagonist's (played by Alia Bhatt) true identity (of an Indian spy) is exposed. A well-made humanist spy-thriller, you won high praise and the film did very well at the box-office. You are quoted saying in IANS May 24, 2018—‘Raazi made me realise it’s important to be in successful films.’ You were also quoted saying  ‘Yes, I play a catalyst in the drama. And that enthused me. It was also refreshing that though I play Pakistani; I am portrayed as a man of great integrity. This rarely happens in Hindi cinema.’ 

RAAZI was well made and it was a good story handled well by Meghna Gulzar. I was glad my role got noticed as she etched it out well. 

Nanak Shah Fakir (2018) would have been a very important film in your career. A Guru Nanak biopic, it was produced by Harinder Sikka.  You addressed the role of Bhai Mardana. It also starred Adil Hussain. But the producers, because of objections raised on the subject supposedly, withdrew it from the theatres worldwide. It offended some sections of the Sikhs and got into trouble with the Akal Takht. Do update us.  

Yes, this is a very cherished project because of the time and effort it took. It is the biopic of Guru Nanak in a way and chronicles his life. It is lyrical and beautiful. Unfortunately a few sections thought the manifestation of Guru Nanak was inappropriate - though we had CG to represent Guru Nanak images. 

You got onto the web series platform well in time. In Spotlight (2017) you essay the role of the famous actor/director/producer Dev Bannerjee. 

Yes, this was perhaps my first foray into the web shows in OTT. Suhail Tatari directed it. I enjoyed this dynamic role. 

As regards web-series Leila (2019), a dystopian drama - when asked about the political nature of Leila and would it throw open the floodgates of censorship, you are quoted saying, “I hope not, it would be silly if that happens. While the Deepa Mehta co-production-direction is set in the future, what can one do if people find similarities to the present? Here you need to doff your hat to the skills of the writers (Urmi Juvekar and Suhani Kanwar) for creating a story, which is relevant to the viewers. All stories whether it is set in the past or future will have some moorings in the here and now. Does (not) the age-old clash between good v/s evil also dominate sci-fi shows like Star Wars etc.? As regards protests I think we live in oversensitive times, there is a need to just chill.” 

My co-stars were Huma Qureshi, Rahul Khanna and a bunch of very talented women. This was set in a futuristic society. I still agree we need to chill and enjoy more than ponder and personalize. 

You have had a tryst with playing Jawaharlal Nehru in a few ventures. You are quoted saying, “Interestingly I am also playing India’s first Prime Minister in one more Marathi web project, which deals with the Samyukt Maharashtra Movement of the fifties, which eventually lead to erstwhile Bombay province to be carved into Maharashtra and Gujarat.” 

Jayprat Desai directed Hutatmam where I played Nehru. It was in Marathi, which I consider my father tongue - great story and content and enriching experience. It was such an insight into the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and its impact. 

You are playing Nehru in a web series 1962 directed by Mahesh Manjrekar. It is about the 1962 Indo-China war

I have played Pandit Nehru here once again. It streams from 26th January 2021, I think on Hotstar. 

Talking about OTT platforms you are quoted saying “While it has opened new vistas for free content, the flip side is that due to oversupply, most shows go unsung unless it really grabs your attention.” 

Yes, I agree. There is too much everywhere. In fact we are all content creators with our short videos, messages, etc. So all is lost soon. 

Did you produce for the Children’s Film Society of India, a film called ‘Pinti Ka Sabun?’

Yes, I produced this. Pramod Pathak directed it. This was a unique experience and production requires some skills! It got two awards at the LIFFI (Lonavla International Film Festival of India) - ‘Best Children’s Film’ and ‘Best Child Actor (male)’ 

In theatre you have done hundreds of shows one gets informed. You were part of the Australian musical The Merchants of Bollywood, based on the story of Indian choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant and her grandfather B. Hiralal. Do inform about the play and the experience. Why is it called Australian Musical? You have travelled around the globe with this since 2005: Europe, China, France, Poland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia (the last season in Sydney in 2010). 

Yes, I was the principal cast member on this show, which began in Australia in 2005 and is still on. To date the production has done almost 1300 shows, and I must have done about 900. It is a fun show with lots of dancing, comedy and razzle-dazzle on stage. This was my big intense experience with live theatre and the opportunity to travel world over was an added bonus. I sometimes feel I could write a film based on my experiences with this. 

Gardish Mein Taare (with Sonali Kulkarni), directed by Saif Hyder Hasan, has garnered very good press and publicity. It is based on the life of Gurudutt and also explores the marriage of filmmaker Guru Dutt with singer Geeta Dutt. Tell us about the play and the experience. You are quoted saying “I love portraying dark and unfathomable characters... The darker the better."

This was a good opportunity to get recharged with theatre. I really look forward to doing this in the future. It was loosely based on Guru Dutt-Geeta Dutt relationship. The writer/director Saif Hyder Hasan envisioned the entire story and placed it in retro Bollywood - essentially a crumbling marriage with Hindi cinema as a backdrop. 

Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba (with Zeenat Aman) is a play of a different trajectory. A love story expressed through letters never written. It is written and directed by Saif Hyder Hasan. Yours was a humanist, real-life portrayal of an aspect of Gandhi. Zeenat Aman was in the role of Kasturba - an unusual casting. Do inform how did the idea germinate of portraying Gandhi as a husband-father and inquiring into that. How did the casting happen? 

The casting surprised me too though I had/have a burning ambition to play Gandhi. Saif Hyder Hasan, the writer/director always spoke about putting this together and when he approached me I was surprised. I guess when you have a strong desire to nurture since years, someone hears. The play is letters written by both trying to explain their complex lives. 

Some of Arif’s plays may appear to address a niche, elitist audience because of the marketing strategy and the cost that now goes into theatre, but that theatre in India is catering to a varied audience profile is heartening. It is also paying the artists and the crew. Encore to all types of theatre co-existing!  

Out of the 3 mediums - theatre, television/web, films, which excites or challenges you the most?  Heard your voice-over for Raymond Khadi: The Story Re-spun. It does ample justice to the subject.  

I don’t discern with the medium. I like any platform, which gives me an opportunity. Started with stage, then into visual mediums, which I love. I reconnected with Deepa Mehta once again on the Netflix show Leila, which is still streaming. 

How do you see your and our collective future in Coronavirus times and post? Will this be the new normal? Live performance in theatre is opening up with a restricted audience, same with films.   

Yes. I have started shooting since the last 2 months, though cautiously. It will all eventually open up. 

My current projects are web series, The Socho Project, directed by Abhigyan Jha, 1962, directed by Mahesh Manjrekar and Qabool Hain for which the shoot is commencing in December 2020. My upcoming films are Gandhi vs Godse, directed by Raj Kumar Santoshi. Scam by Manish Gupta is another quirky comedy/satire that I am shooting for. 

Arif Zakaria is again portraying Gandhi. It is his sincerity and a truthfulness of note in acting combined with an astute understanding of the craft that perhaps casts him in a role such as this.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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